Reanimating the world

Ah! there you are!” I exclaimed to a flat bean and plucked it gently while looking for more. The colour of the beans blends ever so perfectly with the leaves, that they seem to be playing an eternal hide-and-seek with anyone interested in harvesting them. I often lose time when hanging around plants, and trees. In retrospect though, it seems I just temporarily refuse to chase those ticking hands, a mirage of desires that snatch the present reality. Or, more aptly, plants sometimes allow me a peek of their world, where time no longer calls the shots. When I read Sumana Roy’s lament about post-colonial civilization as robbing us of living in tree-time, I could instinctively feel what she meant. Growing up in a typical urban space where movement is the order of the day, a pause is just that – a break from the animation, not a legitimate space of its own. I stare at the earth I dug up to plant a sapling. A few months back, it was a mix of decomposing organic matter. Now, the sweet smell of black humus envelops my senses, and a few moments later I see the heap of soil literally crawl with life. Who said it was “dust to dust”? Seems to me, it is life to life. Perhaps, just not the kind we usually acknowledge. Tiny tendrils quiver in the wind, looking for support that would help the plant climb. Roots search for water beneath the surface. The plant grows, as does the life around it. So much happens, yet we make children classify plants as “non-moving”.

As I walk down a street lined with trees, I inevitably slow down to admire them. The act of slowing down allows me to see some tiny red insects. One, two, many, and then many more. I see their dead bodies strewn across the pavement and feel as if I am walking through some place that was bombarded by violence. That violence being that of indifferent walking. Today, we walk through dead insects, tomorrow it would be axed trees, and then perhaps other suffering beings, all reduced to a fuzzy background one couldn’t care more about. This “psychic numbing” as Arne Johan Vetlesen puts it, seems even more dangerous than active aggression, for the latter still indicates a frenzy of passion which could be rectified. How do you rectify something that isn’t there – the inert vacuum of empathy?

Animism – the idea of attributing life to all things in the environment has been conventionally viewed as backward or childish. Our neat categories and increasingly compartmentalised lives extend the Cartesian duality of mind and matter all the way into our being, till we literally become ‘the ghost in the shell’. But then, we are not. Observe any child’s innocent wonder at a frog hopping by, or their sorrow for having lost a feather ‘gifted’ by a bird, or delight in the wooden rhythm of bamboos knocking each other in the wind, and the world seems more alive again.

I dig the soil, the warmth of its life breathing heavily in my hands. KN, a 13-year-old boy, is digging along with me. A few months back, he didn’t want to touch anything ‘dirty’. Well, how can you admire the flowers without nourishing its roots? So, began his weekly stint at gardening, and when seeds sown by him began to sprout, there was no looking back, only looking in. A few moments later, he unearths a sweet potato, and his face lights up with joy. My thoughts light up with hope.

Seeds germinate below layers of leaf mulch

To hell with good intentions

“When animals stray into human habitat, they call it conflict. When humans encroach wildlife areas, it supposedly becomes co-existence…” remarked Shekar in a tone that barely hid his anger and frustration stemming from years of fighting the uphill battle for wildlife preservation. A wildlife and conservation film-maker by profession, Shekar moved away from making television documentaries, despite being at the peak of his career, and instead began working with NGOs to make critical advocacy films on conservation issues. He said, “I could not continue filming wildlife for idyllic viewing, while witnessing the rapid destruction of their habitat first-hand.” After all, most broadcasting companies don’t want to fund anything that might rattle the viewers, even if that is exactly what is needed.

As someone working in the field of environmental education, and feeling increasingly disillusioned by the lukewarm efforts or lip service done in the name of sustainability by academics, I felt instantly drawn towards his comments; hard-hitting and grounded in solid experience. In mainstream literature, ‘Conservationists’ have come to be painted as some antique breed of idealists, who are being unreasonable and selfish in wanting to preserve forests and wildlife. They are charged at two levels by different groups. The first group belongs to pro-development people who view forests as resources that need to be mined sustainably, even if that spells a death knell for its non-human inhabitants. The ‘sustainable’ here refers only to extraction, not ecology. These arguments are relatively easy to dismiss. The second kind of opposition is more damning as it comes from within the environmentalist community itself. Under the purview of ‘environmental justice’, this group claims that conservationists display what is called ‘full-stomach environmentalism’, by ‘trampling’ (through imposing restrictions on use/habitation of forest areas) over the rights communities which have historically lived in/near forest areas. According to them, conservationists can afford to feel empathy towards wildlife because their livelihood doesn’t depend on the forest. Additionally, they claim that such forest dwellers can actually benefit the local area, and help in forest preservation, having lived in such areas for generations.

To an extent, I believed that there is some merit to this argument, since a part of me wanted to believe that forest dwelling communities can act as stewards of forested areas since the health of those spaces would be integral to their own well-being. However, Shekar was quick to point out that the arrangement might have worked in a subsistence economy where such communities would use forest resources for their own survival. The bottomless demand of markets ranging from local to global has instead made perverse use of the intimate knowledge that locals have of the flora and fauna. He explained (and has also written elsewhere):

“When snake skins were in demand for the international fashion industry in the 1960s, snake-catching tribes (Irula) in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere slaughtered millions of snakes without any restraint. Between 2004 and 2009, in response to Chinese demand for tiger skins and bones, skilled hunters belonging to tribes from Central and North India completely wiped out the big cats from two Tiger Reserves, Sariska and Panna. In 2012, tribal hunters in Nagaland were found trapping over 120,000 Amur falcons every migratory season for sale to bush meat consumers. The truth is, in many parts of India, hunting by local communities is so pervasive that it has led to what scientists describe as the ‘empty forest syndrome’.”

This is not to say that all forest dwellers have an adverse impact on their surroundings. Nor it is a judgement on their value systems, given that they are being forced to participate in a capitalist economy with the skills they possess. However, to romanticize the notion of ‘harmonious forest life’, and turn a blind eye towards how they might be exploiting the place due to market forces, is also another kind of injustice. Shekar’s words reminded me of Wendell Berry’s warning regarding our increased engagement with abstractions, while losing sight of particular contexts. With regards to the idea of ‘justice’ for instance, Berry comments,

“The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on. The historian John Lukacs, whose work I greatly respect, said that ‘the indiscriminate pursuit of justice . . . may lay the world to waste.’ And he invoked modern war, which kills indiscriminately for the sake of some ‘justice.’ He thought the pursuit of truth, small “t,” much safer. I want to remember—and this comes to me from my dad, to some extent—that our system of justice requires a finding of truth, and it labors to see that justice is never done by one person … the effort to discover the truth that goes ahead of judgment is extremely important. It requires us to think about the process and what’s involved.

Under an abstract banner of justice, policies such as the ‘Forests Rights Act’ implemented in 2005, originally meant to correct historical injustice meted out tribal communities, can be misused to facilitate land grabs within forest areas. Given the insatiable greed of neoliberal forces, such maneuvers don’t require any stretch in imagination. Meanwhile, many communities voluntarily want to be resettled in arable areas, since increasing population within forest areas is a sure recipe for conflict with the wildlife. Yet, such pleas have taken a long time to be heard, and many more are being ignored because these would upset the ideas of romantic harmony. After all, no one wants to be pulled up for having good intentions. Also, animals don’t give interviews, nor do they have ‘cultures’ that need preservation and protection.

I don’t intend to insinuate ideas of Human/ Nature dichotomy or that humans can only have adverse impacts on the planet. In fact, I have seen and experienced barren lands being reforested through human efforts. However, universalising such actions is a harmful idea. It requires a deep love and empathy for the natural places to understand when and where Nature needs some space to thrive without human intervention. It requires us to ‘rewild’ ourselves in order to appreciate the beauty of the wild places for what they are and truly co-exist with our non-human kin. This doesn’t entail having lesser respect of civilisation, but it does emphasize an ardent love for the living planet.

In the current socio-political discourse, this would be a highly unpopular idea. However, if this the last stand for the more-than-human species, I can see why Shekar continues to fight. After all, as George Monbiot writes, “Perhaps there is no remaining moral space for the exercise of physical courage. Wherever you might seek to swing your fist, someone’s nose is in the way.”


Image Source: LUISA RIVERA / YALE E360

Starting small

Nature education doesn’t always have to entail long treks, or visits to supposedly pristine ‘natural’ areas. If we accept that we are part of the larger ecosystem, Nature is observing us, rather than the other way round. We can only reciprocate through guiding our senses to observe, appreciate and love the dynamic connections teeming with life, and death. Even a small potted plant nestled within a concrete jungle is a site of interesting activities, if one were to pay attention. Children don’t need to be told to love Nature, they need to participate in it. These are the lived experiences which add up to environmental perspectives. Researcher Louise Chawla interviewed a number of people working in the environmental sector, and found that most of them traced their motivation to work in the field to childhood experiences. As educators we need to design experiences that foreground the space and time for unmediated observation. After all, too much time has been spent on trying to know, and we are not left any wiser for it. So, why not try awe instead?

A curry leaf plant (Murraya koenigii) in a pot. (Clockwise) Ants ‘farming’ Aphids to use the sap they suck from the plant; A spider web made between two leaves; A common Mormon caterpillar munching on the leaf

References: Chawla, L. (1999). Life paths into effective environmental action. The journal of environmental education31(1), 15-26. Chawla, L., & Hart, R. A. (1995). The Roots of Environmental Concern. NAMTA journal20(1), 148-57.

For the love of the earth

Though my ears were still ringing as I got off the patent rickety state transport bus of Maharashtra, it didn’t miss the crackle of dry leaves carpeting the dirt road. I have grown up amidst the crowded lanes of Delhi, and as a result was the typical urban millennial until a series of experiences convinced me that restoring our relationship with the land that sustains us lies at the foundation of healing our abused bodies, minds and the surrounding environment. Nowhere is the interdependency manifested as vividly as in the act of farming, where the reciprocity of food, nourishment, and care goes all the way down to the sweet-smelling soil teeming with micro-organisms. However, there is much that our generation has forgotten. As botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, the restoration depends on re-story-ation. What are the narratives we can rewrite for ourselves and others? The stories we choose to believe and enact have adaptive consequences; perhaps now is the right time to change the dominant narrative. In some small part, I have tried to do so by exploring multiple alternative threads of city life in the form of urban farming. The past few years in Mumbai have been spent in learning the intricacies and miracles of soil, only to realise we don’t know much about it. We can, nevertheless, share an intimate relationship with it by growing plants and watch life take roots.

My journey has also connected me to kindred spirits who like me, share an abiding love and awe for the complex web of natural processes. One such person is the SundayFarmer (SF), whose endearing blog about his experiences at an acre of a farm owned by him caught my eye. Though he calls himself a weekend farmer and generously credits his Man-Friday, Mangal for a lot of the leg-work, it was easy to see that he would prefer to spend much more time ‘far from the madding crowd’ if circumstances allowed. We got in touch and decided that I could visit the farm whenever he went next, except that I didn’t know that my decision was jinxed. A series of unfortunate and unexpected events ensured that I had to wait for almost a year-and-half before I finally made the trip on Christmas Eve. My uncle, a retired forest officer decided to accompany me at the last minute, and as a result, had his first rendezvous with the crowd of Mumbai local trains. I must admit, he was pretty game about the experience though.

So, here I was, trudging on the dirt track after nearly 3 hours of travel, to finally set foot on the SF’s weekend farm. You don’t have to be a nature enthusiast to observe the stark difference between his patch of earth and the nearby plots; the latter forced into artificial rows of identical trees or crops, surrounded by trimmed grass. His one-acre patch on the other hand, blooms with diversity. What may seem like a disorienting sight for anyone accustomed to the uniformity and monotony of industrial culture, is actually a model for resilience. Diversity ensures that a single pest doesn’t damage the entire farm; it ensures that a ‘pest’ doesn’t become one in the first place because there would be a suitable habitat for its predator. ‘Weeds’ don’t become a nightmare because they have their own role to play in the ecosystem as live mulch or nitrogen-fixing properties and co-exist with desired plants. Termites scuttle around in hordes slowly decomposing the abundant leaf litter, creating conducive conditions for plants to grow. Everything thrives and dies, only to be born again. SF introduced us to each plant and tree on the farm as if introducing a relative, with a warmth independent of their ‘productivity’ in terms of bearing fruits. After all, they are family. Over the years, he has experimented with growing a variety of plants, and has had his share of failures. His recent attempt of bee-keeping also ran into a number of issues, though “each time there has been a different problem, so I learnt something new” he commented with a wry grin. Years of decomposed leaf-litter made the ground soft to walk on. So, it was difficult to imagine that the area is actually a very rocky terrain. “I bought this place because it near the river, then I realised that everywhere I dug there are stones to be unearthed!” he chuckled, pointing towards heaps of stones found on the farm. “But it is ok, the plants manage, and we are also learning how to grow different crops in such a terrain”, he continued. We walked through the banana grove, and were generously blessed by its giant leaves trickling cold morning dew on our heads. We stopped to admire the fragrant flowers of gandha-raj, the giant bamboo groves, the abundant papayas, the beautiful flowers of rose-apple tree, the bare branches of a tree that he has nick-named as silver oak, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies among the many others sensuous attributes of the farm. Be quiet enough and one can hear the flow of the stream and walk towards it. I was delighted to dip my finger and watch tiny fishes gathering around it like a curious bunch of school children.

As we parted, he gifted me some seeds, a raw papaya, and some banana stems. Kimmerer writes, “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” How rich would we be to enjoy more of such relationships rather than empty transactions of plastic money signifying nothing except the symbolic power of greed. My uncle, though appreciative of the place, later whispered into my ear, “Wouldn’t it be better to build a room in some corner and open this up for tourists to spend some time etc., they can see the farm, enjoy the river and he would earn a lot!” I whispered back, “Yes, but that’s not love.”

Termites churning the Earth

The journey of re-enchantment

Bael?” My ears pricked up when I heard the word, my thoughts flooding with memories of Dadu cracking open the fruit, and removing the orange fibrous pulp to make a delicious drink later. It had been years since I had tasted the fruit, but somewhere, the memory had been patiently waiting for me to relive the experience.

This has been happening to me frequently. In the past 7 years, or so, since I have deliberately decided to distance myself from the rush of “bigger, faster, better”, the slow, complex, symphony of relationships, of both human and more than human beckon me. As political theorist Jane Bennett describes, the world can open up in unexpected and delightful ways if we’re willing to be enchanted by it. After all, didn’t we all once live in enchanted places, when we spoke the language of stones and trees, rivers and hills?  Only when I slow down, can I see the wild growth of cherry tomatoes by a busy roadside, or hear the distinct sounds of different leaves fluttering in the wind, or spot the native green vegetables that many people have abandoned in the favour of exotic, expensive options… each time, I feel like I am gathering ancient wisdom, while also travelling down a familiar path with a new sense of gratitude. I ask my mother for recipes of vegetables that might cease to exist if we forget how to eat them. Food has become that thread of connection, weaving its way through my sense of identity and purpose. How easy it is to break the long line of culture and knowledge? Just by forgetting an ingredient of a meal. But then, the remembering is also a way to restore, and revive the lost voices; Of the birds, animals, trees, rivers, and our ancestors.

It is a humble beginning, but when I see my students, all excited to munch on raw Ambadi leaves they have just plucked from their own farm, I believe it is a good start. An ethics based on care and generosity must begin with a sense of wonder and respect. As they begin to care for their beloved sour-tasting plant, spending their time peering into its pink calyx, admiring the shape of the leaves, they are drawn into a world of reciprocity and dialogue. Now, when the plants speak to them, they slow down to hear it murmur.

Peeking into a pumpkin flower

Anatomy of a climb

I am a reluctant academic. The intellectual games of linguistic reasoning don’t excite me, even as I am forced to learn the rules of the game to critique it. So, it is hardly surprising that my interests gravitate towards theories of embodied cognition that have been arguing for the rightful place of the body as constitutive in meaning-making rather than being subservient to the mysterious workings of the brain. As it turns out, this also becomes an important ecological argument, in terms of valuing sensory encounters (with)in the environment. Legitimising and valuing body-based interactions paves way for a fuller experience, the beginning of kinship through acknowledging the intertwining of our senses, sensibilities with the environment.

Slowly, the weight of the bag begins to bite into my shoulder blades. My feet are closely mapping the contours of the ground, and even the slightest incline sends a shiver down my thighs. The varying textures of the ground allow me to move forward or send me slipping down a few steps back. I am no longer walking on the ground, as much as I am walking with it. The occasional streams provide respite to the burning feet, yet the stones along the water are treacherous. Stepping on them is an act of faith. I am learning the language of stones, asking them to be kind.”

Our cities are designed for disembodied interactions. The abstraction is necessary for the psychic numbing because if we were to hear the “the rustle of corn leaves while opening a box of breakfast cereal”(Kimmerer, 2012) we would also hear the scream of the animals dying in the forests burnt for palm oil. Once a relationship is established, one can’t be indifferent to the other’s fate. So, we live in the paradox of an increasingly networked world, and diminished capacities to sense the interdependencies. We are under the “Spell of Discursive” as described by philosopher Heesoon Bai; We mistake the map for the world and are continuing to build technology that can sustain the illusion forever. Rebecca Solnit (2001) comments on our collective atrophy of senses using the example of transport- “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.” In a world choking with automobiles, even the simple act of walking can be a radical protest against the designed sensory impairment.

The cold moss soothes the fingers bruised through grasping of the sharp rock faces. Breath comes in abrupt gasps as the slopes become steeper. Protruding roots and branches lend a helping hand. The afternoon sun makes its presence known through rivulets of sweat flowing down my face. I realise they are following the contours of my body, just as I am following the ridges of a dry stream up the hill. The water sculpts my body, and I follow its path. The sight no longer reigns supreme, I need to feel my way up, groping for footholds. I reach a ledge and lie down for a while. My ears touch the ground, and I listen…”

The increasing confines of artificial comforts require that even more be taken from somewhere else. The sensuality that rests on the reciprocity of love and care instead turns into a brutal lust for materials. Beings turn into commodities, relationships turn into transactions. Education legitimises the enterprise, by valuing supposedly intellectual pursuits over sensory experiences. Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2018) argues that the “promise of education lies in the capacity to respond and to be responded to: without such ‘response-ability’, as we might call it, education would be impossible.” Yet, the schooling continues. How else would one learn to live in abstractions? We were not born this way.

Time is inconsequential in the forest. Enchanted by the glossy back of a beetle pushing a ball of dirt uphill, I can empathise with its efforts as I carry my load along. Ants form a busy line. The leaf litter now seems animate as myriad insects form an underground orchestra. Every footstep of mine adds a beat to their song. I am no longer a witness. Through attending to my participation, I am re(member)ing and acknowledging my ancient kinship. Reaching the summit of the hill, my legs quiver with effort, but a sense of satisfaction flows through my body. I didn’t make the journey; the journey made me.”

In age pervaded by ever-increasing alienation, perhaps the first step needs to be a literal one. Step outside, and let the body attend to the world. Ingold writes, “ if education is about caring for the world we live in, and for its multiple human and non-human inhabitants, then it is not so much about understanding them as it is about restoring them to presence, so that we can attend and respond to what they have to say.” I feel we have a long dialogue pending.

Picture from the trek to Karoli Ghat and Ratangad, a part of Sahyadri range.